Friday, November 18, 2011

Joseph Cornell: Worlds in a Box

Unable to get to sleep late last night, I pulled off the bookshelf a book of Joseph Cornell's selected diaries, letters and files (called Theater of the Mind). It was just the thing to send me off to sleep, Cornell's diary entries alternating between the list-like and dreamlike.

Joseph Cornell (1903-1972) made collages and films but is most famous for his exquisite wooden boxes made from every day objects he found and collected. His assemblages have a mysterious, surreal, dreamlike quality with their surprising juxtaposition of objects. They often contain worlds he would never see: of international travel, hotels, flight, European art, theatre and glamour. Joseph Cornell remained strictly on the ground. He lived in the splendidly (and aptly) named Utopia Parkway in Flushing, New York, with his mother and disabled brother his entire life, and remained there when he outlived them both.

Entirely self-taught and somewhat reclusive, spending his days scouring secondhand bookshops, junk shops and flea markets, Cornell had all the makings of an outsider artist. But towards the end of his career he became quite well-known, meeting artists including Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol, writers like Susan Sontag and filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage and Larry Jordan, all of whom embraced his work. Of course, fame didn't affect him at all, except he was able to hire assistants (usually young women).

(Like my theory that all lonely, strange, perverted men could be cured of their woes by the love of a good woman…. all outsider artists could be cured by hanging out with famous artists – which perhaps saved Cornell from total obscurity.)

His short films, too, are like extensions of his boxes and collages: self-contained, dreamlike worlds and found objects. His most popular film, Rose Hobart, 1936, comprises almost entirely of re-edited footage from a B movie in which the actress Rose Hobart starred and Cornell was obsessed with. In Cornell's hands it almost accidentally becomes an experimental, surreal, dreamlike experience. Later, with the help of Brakage, Jordan and Rudy Burckhardt, he shot his own material, usually filmed in parks around New York City and featuring birds and/or young women, such as The Aviary (1955) and the lyrical Nymphlight (1957), both of which now look like direct influences on my Pigeons are People (1993) video.

After his mother and brother died, Cornell produced less work and became more lonely and reclusive. He died, alone, a few days after his sixty-ninth birthday.

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